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Here’s a dichotomy. Menswear is booming — according to Euromonitor International, the global market for men’s designer apparel is projected to reach $33bn in 2020, up 14 per cent from 2015 — and yet the men’s show system is falling apart. Over the four days of this week’s Milan shows for SS17, only three shows warranted prolonged attention: Prada, Gucci and Versace. The schedule had so many gaps due to absence and defection, I averaged just three shows a day. Does that mean the menswear show is redundant?
Of the standout shows, Prada and Versace had similar themes: both featured billowing nylon coats, athletics leggings and sandals worn with socks. It was one of the spooky cases of fashion coincidence, with much else that was different. Prada was the more literal, each model dressed ready for a hike. As a look, it was a bit of a joke — Prada water bottles! — but stripped away there were deft pieces of desirability and worth. Versace’s sporty pieces were more a guide to a modern way of living, one where a zip-up blouson can be shoved in hand luggage or a jersey blazer slung over a seat back and keep its shape. The show had the confidence of a house in the ascendant, its latest step the hiring of chief executive Jonathan Akeroyd, who for years ushered forward Alexander McQueen.
Gucci sits separate from pretty much everyone else in fashion, a clever place to be. Colour, embellishment and a purposeful jumble of styles sung from the catwalk: a kimono here, a Donald Duck knitted tank there. What struck most was the intentional ageing. A blue corduroy zip-up looked dirty. A yellow leather jacket was battered. A green plaid long wool coat looked lucky to have escaped a moth attack after years in the attic. It spoke of the air of faded aristocracy that creative director Alessandro Michele has given the brand. It’s a volte-face from Gucci’s jet-set positioning, and it is a welcome one.
Admittedly, other shows had good work. The sportiness of Emporio Armani was strong and relevant. I’m ever impressed by Brunello Cucinelli’s understanding of his wealthy middle-aged customer, who has no fear of wearing trackpants and sneakers with a blazer, all in shades of grey or navy. Fendi is also doing good work, here a long parade of fancy poolside fare.
But this menswear dichotomy was bugging me. Over a beer, Sam Lobban, buying manager for men’s retailer Mr Porter, confirmed that business is booming. So why are the shows collapsing? “There used to be a set way to communicate a brand message, and it was basically do a runway show,” he said. “Now each brand is working out the best way to communicate to their consumer.” Whether that’s through social media or in-store collaborations, the runway show is now only, if anything, part of the strategy. Do men care if an item is shown on the catwalk? “There’s a certain customer who likes the pride linked to, ‘Is that jacket Saint Laurent?’, ‘Yeah it’s runway’,” said Lobban. “But there’s amazing product that doesn’t ever exist in a show. Does it make it any lesser? No.”
Other buyers agreed: their business is strong, these changes to the system are pretty irrelevant. Even if the show schedule completely collapsed, buyers would still have to spend the same amount of time in Milan and Paris placing their seasonal orders. Life goes on.
Not long ago online shopping was alien. Then WiFi happened, and smartphones, and luxury online became a new normal. Imagine a time where shows are staged in virtual reality, with anyone, anywhere, sitting in an endless front row. Maybe it’s editors who must accept that their place in the system is not what it was. In the VR world, the catwalk image still exists. It just doesn’t have to follow the old schedule, be stuck in the same old cities. With the catwalk or without, men will continue to divine their own path in finding what for them is right. “Menswear,” said Lobban, “doesn’t need a show to look cool.”